Friday, 12 June 2009

The words 'geometry of three dimensional objects'

would remind most of us about those geometry lessons in school where we had to calculate the surface area of a cube or a sphere. I would struggle to do either these days - think I could still manage the cube but I do not remember the sphere. It is simply not important to me.
I thought about this when I saw a piece in the paper this morning. Terry Tao is coming back to Adelaide for a brief visit and is giving a lecture on Poincare's conjecture - the geometry of three dimensional objects. I will not be attending.
I have no doubt that the lecture will be well attended. Adelaide mathematicians and others will be curious to see what the winner of the Fields Medal has to say about this important topic.
Yes, it is important. I can see that. I have no doubt at all that an understanding of such things is important to science. There are undoubtedly times when it is vitally important to be able to calculate the surface area of an irregularly shaped object for example. I will leave that up to Terry. He's smart - one of the smartest people on the planet. He is to mathematics what Stephen Hawking is to theoretical physics. What they do is completely beyond my understanding. They might try and explain if I asked nicely but I doubt I would begin to understand the answer. Does it matter?
Are these people lonely? What is it like to be so deeply into your subject matter that even your colleagues have trouble keeping up with the calculations? Most people have never heard of Tao and most people would never have heard of Hawking if it were not for the fact that he is physically incapacitated to an extraordinary degree.
I am nowhere near as smart as Hawking or Tao. I know where I sit on the Bell curve of intelligence rating. It's a privileged position but nowhere near that privileged.
I no longer feel any surprise when people express surprise or lack of understanding at what I do. It is just something that has never occurred to them. It is not something they have ever needed to think about. They know that people need aid in emergencies. They have no knowledge or understanding of how that aid works - or, more often, does not work. I think emergency aid is just as important as the geometry of three dimensional objects. I cannot say it is more important because I do not know enough about mathematics and physics.
In the end I wonder whether it all comes down to the way in which everything is marketed. We can buy and sell ideas as well as objects.


Adelaide Dupont said...

Maths isn't especially important to me, either, but I can appreciate a 'beautiful' proof when it is shown me and I was quite good at algebra and statistics. However in the last years when I did it, I got relatively poor marks because of inabilities to remember what was in the tests, and I virtually stopped progressing.

Yes, I have heard of Terry Tao, since he won the Fields Medal in 2006, or shared it in that year with three other mathematicians. I have also heard of his two brothers and his father. One of the brothers is excellent at chess, and again, chess-maths is algebraic. So are the tactics and strategy!

Aren't there cones, tauruses (they are like a doughnut in a hole) and all the hedrons with hexagons and triangles and squares? (I've played with them in various applications like OpenOffice). I am sure these are some of the objects which Poincare's covers. Have heard of Poincare itself if through general knowledge. Now I know that Perelman who proved it refused the Fields Medal.

Poincare (Henri) was so smart and so political.

Now about emergency aid. A lot of people have got aware because of big events like September 11 and the Year 2000 bug, to name some events in our century. I do not know that people are so aware that it can be outside police, fire and ambulance.

It would be especially interesting to know how mathematical and physical calculations get into emergency aid, as much as the politics and the economics!

catdownunder said...

I am not sure how much maths and physics go into emergency aid - but there is plenty of arithmetic.
I suppose the maths and physics come in with the 'planes, when the aid workers are fortunate enough to have such things at their disposal.
I am no statistics lecturer at university was a very patient man!